Scientific and archaeological papers presented at a recent conference on Egyptian foreign relations revealed that ancient Egyptian foreign relations were far more complex than elite and monumental and textual clichés express. Although I was aware that such clichés represent a very partial view of the ancient world, as the conference progressed I realised how far I had internalised and normalised the elite, ancient Egyptian worldview they presented. This experience raised questions as to how far we who study the ancient world absorb its mores, how we control for these in our research and investigate the social complexities obscured by them.
In September I was asked to present a paper on recent research in the Western Desert of Egypt at the University of Liverpool Undercurrents conference (sponsored by Marie Curie Actions), which looked at the relationships between ancient Egypt and the cultures on its periphery and across the ancient world.
The papers at the Undercurrents conference covered a wide range of cultures, sites and disciplines from satellite imagery, to Tutankhamun’s gold appliques, to the iconography of the gods of Pi-Ramesse. Every paper contributed to the overall theme, looking at the complex interaction between the Nile Valley and its neighbours, near and far. Pottery, like the Cypriot base-ring juglets (above left), played a significant role in several papers, but scientific analyses of various different types was also a key theme.
A recent increase in scientific analyses of data from multiple sources (e.g. Zakrzewski et al. 2015) is currently providing new insights into ancient Egyptian culture and society and this is likely to continue and increase. The studies presented in Liverpool are a part of this trend and demonstrate the value of scientific and archaeological studies for understanding the great variety of ancient Egyptian interactions with their neighbours and revealing the contrast between the genuinely complex and flexible web of ancient cultural interactions and the limited and clichéd impression of these relationships that we get from Egyptian sources.
We are familiar with the stereotypical ways Egyptian iconography portrayed foreigners from a variety of races. For each group the Egyptian artist emphasises specific distinguishing characteristics, including skin colour, dress, facial features, hairstyle and beard types, that identifies them as both ‘un-Egyptian’ and with a specific tribe or area.
These stereotypes appear in stock scenes as dangerous enemies being vanquished or as bringers of tribute. The depiction of the foreigner as the chaotic ‘other’, requiring subjugation for the political and ritual protection of Egypt is most evident in the ubiquitous ‘smiting scenes’ (Köhler, 2002; below) which date back at least as far as Narmer palette and the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3200 – 2686 BC). The same religious and political message is conveyed by New Kingdom imagery of Pharaohs, in their chariots, triumphantly leading their armies to victory over the bodies of slain foreigners.
There is certainly some truth in these scenes. The New Kingdom Pharaohs fought battles with various foreign groups, taking prisoners and booty. How common real ‘smitings’ of captured enemies were is debatable, but there’s no doubt as to the impression that is intended by images of ubiquitous Egyptian victory. Foreigners are dangerous, threatening and must be vanquished. Only in their defeated state can they be permitted a presence on Egyptian monuments.
When they are not being brutally executed, foreigners are presented as grateful bringers of tribute in several Egyptian tomb scenes. The inspiration for these scenes may be diplomatic gift exchange, such as that described in the Amarna letters, which record diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its neighbours (Moran 1992).
Egyptologists have long observed that if we were to believe the Egyptian sources, we might imagine that interactions between Egypt and its neighbours were dominated by war and tribute, with relatively little room for trade. We have assumed that recognising the ritual clichés inherent in Egyptian elite self-presentation of foreign relations immunises us, enabling us to objectively dissect the ancient sources, seeking a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the complexities of ancient Egyptian foreign relations. Indeed this concept, that the recognition of bias or partiality enables us to manage it in our research, is a crucial element in all historical research and textual analysis.
But when faced with the scientific analysis presented at the Undercurrents conference I realised that I had absorbed and internalised much more of the ancient Egyptians’ self-presentation than I thought. Although I had always assumed that the clichés of dominion and tribute were merely the politically, socially and ritually appropriate face of a much more complex system of trade and exchange, my surprise at the reality of ancient trade relations revealed to me how far I had internalised the elite Egyptian worldview. As paper after paper revealed Egyptian society enmeshed in webs of trade relations and international fashion, that involved exchanging divinities and actively working with groups that are elsewhere presented as a threat to be conquered, I realised that I hadn’t been sufficiently skeptical. Skeptical of the endless lines of captive foreigners bringing tribute or awaiting illustrative (in both senses of the word) execution, of Egyptian claims to hostile encirclement by chaotic enemies, the endless battle reliefs and the ritualised fear of the non-Egyptian world. While paying lip-service to the idea that the reality was more complicated that the texts, my repeated exposure to and interest in ancient Egyptian written sources, iconography and imagery meant that, like an ancient scribal student copying texts, I had thoroughly absorbed and internalised the elite Egyptian worldview presented in those sources. A hefty dose of scientific and archaeological analysis was required to reveal the reality of this to me.
This raised many further questions for me. How do I respond to this in my future research, avoiding interpreting my data in terms of ancient cliché, without ignoring useful cultural information from textual and monumental sources? Given how far I had internalised an ancient Egyptian worldview, even while assuming it was only a partial impression of reality, then what else might I be missing? How else has my 21st-century-mind become attuned to the imperatives of an ancient Egyptian scribe? And if this affects me, then how does it affect my fellow archaeologists, classicists and historians who also work with complex, literate societies?
I cannot answer all these questions, indeed I wonder if anyone can, but I can attempt to answer the first one. If we can’t help but internalise the norms of the societies we study then it is even more important that we investigate those norms from multiple textual, archaeological and scientific perspectives, that we consider the evidence of different classes, sexes and ethnicities, and that we are aware of the ancient clichés hidden in our minds. To do this we need the increase in scientific and archaeological investigations that are currently moving beyond the elite and monumental elements of the ancient world. But we also need to integrate the results of those scientific and archaeological studies into our understanding of monumentality, iconography and textual interpretation. A better understanding of ancient reality hides in the cracks between science, archaeology, epigraphy, text-criticism and iconography. To excavate those realities we need to be prepared to integrate multiple sources, comparing, contrasting and questioning their different perspectives to understand the complex reality that is revealed by archaeology and scientific studies, the simplistic and clichéd way that reality was presented in ancient monumental iconography and politicised texts, and how those presentations influenced or brought about changes in economic trade and political activities.
Köhler, C. E. 2002. History or ideology? New reflections on the Narmer palette and the nature of foreign relations in Pre- and Early Dynastic Egypt. In E. C. M. van den Brink, and Thomas E. Levy (eds), Egypt and the Levant: interrelations from the 4th through the early 3rd millennium BCE, 499-513. London ; New York: Leicester University Press.
Moran, W. L. 1992. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.